And yet she has often said that she finds her work and this book in particular hard to talk about. How can this be in the face of being able to write such scenes? She pauses again, as though trying to formulate the most precise and unambiguous response that won’t be misinterpreted. “I think a lot of writers are like that. I think that’s why you become a writer isn’t it? I think it’s more about finding it cringy….I find it painfully embarrassing to talk about what I write about! Even though I know it’s the obvious question that everyone asks I still can’t formulate an answer.”
I ask her whether this could be something to do with how privately the book reads in places. She looks thoughtful again, as though she is once again worried about being misinterpreted ” Well the thing about first person narrative is that it is so intimate” she says “- I mean, let’s face it- you couldn’t write about sex if you were a virgin or childbirth if you hadn’t had a child. I wrote this initially seven years ago – everyone says that it feels autobiographical but I really didn’t mean it to be! Even the publisher thought so! I had a child in college and there are those parallels – otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write about it but it doesn’t mean that it was my character. I was a bit nervous actually coming up to publication wondering if there was a disclaimer I could put on it or something! Even friends of my ex have said to him ‘I read your girlfriend’s book’ or ‘lucky you- it’s really wild!’ – which I find really offensive! I mean how was the point that missed!”
Time gets on and we get sidetracked by Dalkey again- “how do I get there again? they said something about meeting under an arch”. Getting into the mind of a scared and intellectually shy college female student is one thing but the brain of Oisin is quite another. How on earth was she able to access a character who thinks of little else than violent and deeply misogynistic pornographic fantasies?
“He was actually the most liked character in the book and the one people empathised with the most!” She says with more than a little surprise. ” I think he’s more readable in a classic way with a more linear narrative. I did find him really hard to access as a character though. I think it was more of an exercise to chronicle a way of thinking that exists really.”
I ask Elske about something that she said in an interview with Sue Leonard that ‘sex was political to an extent’ What extent is it?
She appears careful again. “Well I don’t think it is just sex and that’s the problem. I think sex is a private matter in the sense that you cannot infringe on someone else’s private sex and their sexuality. It’s not for society to decide what people do but I think sex is hugely – even between two people about power. The gender politics that inform their behaviours generally also infringe on their private sex. I wouldn’t say it’s completely political because it is a body act and deeply informed by our subconscious. I tell you what I’m afraid of and why I said that – I think it has implications for homosexuality.” There is a pause while we both consider this left-field response. “I think when you say it’s political and shaped by cultural repercussions you also run the risk of saying that homosexuality is political and that sexuality or homosexualiity is a choice. You open up this can of worms and I think you have to be so careful what you’re feeding into. I mean if you look at ‘schoolgirl’ fashion and a nation lusting after minors- of course it’s political but it’s such a complicated issue. I think you could probably read a lot into somebody’s politics with that.”
Moving on from sex or ‘Sex’, I want to raise something else that occurred to me throughout my own reading of Between Dog and Wolf. The characters are all fairly narcissistic and often deeply unlikeable creatures. I tell her that I got the feeling that she often wrote under a tone of apology for them- a kind of ‘where would you get such creatures’ eyes to heaven narrative. It occurs to me that she might not have thought of this until she smiles: “There is a risk when you’re writing characters like that that the novel itself can read as juvenile and self-centred.’ Elske does point out that she was herself very young when she wrote it and I offer that the apologetic tone may be down to numerous later redrafts. “The characters are very young though! Oisin is a little thick actually and Helen opts out- she clicks into a heteronormative dumb bimbo role which is so much easier to play! The achievements are so basic!”
In essence then the characters drawn by Rahill are more than self-centred or pretentious but not fully-formed people who are constantly forced to redefine and rediscover themselves. It is no coincidence that Helen, one of the central and most fragile characters falls pregnant- a condition which Rahill herself found her in in her final year. There is definitely a sense that the college environment is not only full of academic disturbances but it also represents an environment that the characters are in fact too emotionally young to adequately deal with. This develops into another discussion point on students, ‘progressive thoughts’ and of course gender: “When I was in college there was a very shallow anti-sexism- very shallow. You would have phrases bandied about like ‘you’re a tit fascist’ or ‘who are you to think you know better than a father’ – all these kinds of things. When I got pregnant I didn’t have the energy to counter ‘counter-propaganda’ if you like. I found it quite isolating. I was thrust into a situation where my actions began contradict my politics…..so I knew what the child needed but it contradicted what I might have previously believed.”
Going back to the ‘pitch’ then, I continue with the ‘gender’ question and if she was concerned about pigeon-holing or being stuck in the gender ‘box’. This is the meat of it really- gender, patriarchal thought structures and how women are perceived by men and indeed each other. Rahill’s book is fuelled by this dynamic- a fuel which is confirmed when she explains the journey of the book toward publication: “I was talking to an agent about this book about two years ago” Elske says “and she asked me to sum it up for her. So I said….well, it’s about gender and she said that I was not, under any circumstances to use the word ‘gender’. You have to be honest about your book though ultimately. Faber were also interested in it which was really exciting and I met the guy who said they wanted to cut out about 80 % of the sex. I just said ‘what do you think the book is about? how can I tell my story without it?’ I didn’t understand why they wanted it. That’s the only way of telling that story- it’s not even a linguistic thing. In the end somebody hated it so much that they vetoed it so that was that! So I said after that that I wasn’t going to change it.”
I ask her what she is up to now, writing-wise and how it’s going to which she responds while trying to wrestle Broc away from the door again:
“I’m actually writing another novel now. This one’s coming a lot more quickly than the first novel- I’m not a slow writer but I redraft a lot. What I’m writing now I think is great…now but I’ll go back and re draft and redraft…I’ve never had this experience before of writing something really quickly so I don’t know whether it’s good or bad! I usually find it very hard. I think I’m finding it easier because it’s a book that I’ve been trying to write for a long time in the back of my mind but couldn’t for two reasons. The first was that my grandmother was still alive. It’s largely about and inspired by her and partly because this novel wasn’t published. When I sent off the last proof for Between Dog and Wolf, they said to me ‘you should be very proud of yourself and sit down with a glass of wine and celebrate!’ The first thing I did was to write the first chapter of the new book!”
How hard is the creative process for her I ask? Does she associate herself with other writers?
“That’s the thing- the first novel was really hard but this one is coming a lot easier. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing as I said. I think it may partly be due to a confidence boost too. I expected this novel to be slated because my first play was slated and when I was trying to get it published a lot people hated it!” When it comes to how she relates to other authors though she seems to be stuck on how she might relate to them. She lands on her experience as an intern with Lilliput Press and proofing manuscripts. “I actually did an edit for ‘Bad Day at Blackrock’ [by fellow lilliput author Kevin Power] and I was really annoyed….I remember thinking ‘I should have written this!’ I ask her why and she refers once again his appearance at the Red Line Book Festival and to how effortless the narrative seemed to him: “he just seemed to really know what he was talking about and I struggled with mine!” She says presumably with the Dalkey event in mind.
It occurs to me I can’t really think of writers who she reminds me of myself, which is unusual until I realise that she seems closer to visual artists such as Dorothy Cross and Alice Maher in how they address the issue of gender and how they express it. She tells me that it is not the first time she has heard of this comparison and that she will explore their art for herself. “Well I read a lot of different stuff and go through phases” she tells me, talking of her own reading. “I went through a phase where I read everything by Margaret Atwood- I just think she’s brilliant though her later stuff reads much more carefully than her earlier stuff. She has a pretty clear agenda now doesn’t she? Her stuff makes me sort of anxious now in the same way as Mary Condren’s lectures did in college – how much of an awful state the world is in! I’d always read a lot of Jeanette Winterson too.”
We stay with Atwood and her move from the smallish box that is gender to the wider post-apocalyptic narrative that is Oryx and Crake as well as the Handmaid’s Tale. I ask her to tell me about the small box that is ‘gender’
“There is no hard and fast rule really is there with feminist beliefs that are often mutually exclusive” she says. “It’s not very fulfilling and you have to qualify everything like ‘sex is political….to an extent’ . It’s such a mine-field!You also begin to read everything from a gendered perspective. People then tell you that ‘not everything is about gender’ and I say…’yes it is!’ People say that it’s ‘brotherhood’ that is behind war which reinforces the idea that there is a lot of misogyny to it as well – it’s very hard to stop thinking in this way once you start! Like you said- it becomes a box.The arguments are so complex and so you try to explain using psychoanalysis…but not just psychoanalysis…feminist psychoanalysis! and it just becomes this very isolating thing.”
The interview then comes to an end much in the same way as it began- without much warning and distracted by the Dalkey event and a now hyper Broc. I wonder how on earth she is going to make her way to the luas in this luggaged state, however, she gathers up all of the aforementioned stuff and with a word of thanks to the very patient waiter Elske leaves the cafe.